A Picture Perfect Haunt
Design Tips from the Experts

The first stirrings of a haunt begin in someone’s imagination. Born from a stark memory, perhaps, or a vivid dream or maybe a designer’s vision of what spine-chilling really looks like. Practical concerns soon enter the picture. Is it feasible? Is it affordable? Is it safe? Will it deliver return on investment? There are many factors to consider when designing the perfect haunt. For this article, the following venues weighed in on the process. 

The USS Nightmare is a haunted attraction built upon an actual 1930s-era steamboat dredge. Crowd control ensures guests’ safety once they are aboard.

A haunt situated in a unique locale can be a real draw. It also creates its own set of challenges. Just ask Allen Rizzo, the general manager of the USS Nightmare, a haunted house attraction built upon an actual 1930s-era steamboat dredge. It sits on the banks of the Ohio River in Newport, Ky. “As much as it’s a blessing to have an opportunity to haunt an old steamboat, it can also be a curse.  The boat still has all the large steam equipment necessary for its designed purpose of dredging the rivers.  The challenge we have is to create exceptional haunt scenes within the limitation and confines of a large boat designed specifically for another purpose,” he said. The USS Nightmare’s creative staff maximizes every conceivable space. The tour of the haunt goes through most of the 288-foot steamboat from the engine room to the boiler rooms to the more intimate crew quarters. “We have a very specific path design through the boat.  However, we also work hard to maintain the feeling of open space,” Rizzo added. The staff does this by reducing the number of walls and railings that might define the pathway, and instead relies on features more inherent to a dredge boat’s environment to accomplish the same task. “For example, the path through our galley takes the guest through the same path that the boat’s crew used in going through the chow line,” explains Rizzo. In the massive engine room, the staff has crafted a giant maze, without walls, using cargo and cargo crates to manage guests along a selected path.  

Crowd control ensures guests’ safe passage once aboard the USS Nightmare. “Our crowds are outside the haunt, and the number of guests permitted inside is managed to prevent crowding that can diminish both safety and the haunt experience,” said Rizzo. And since staff can never totally predict patrons’ behavior, the haunt’s scenes have built-in safety factors. “We’ll reduce hard corners, uneven floors, low hanging props that could injure a guest when they naturally react to the scares,” he added. Of course, actors play a huge role in controlling crowds and pace within a haunt. Therefore, the USS Nightmare’s thespians are all trained carefully. “The actors must work in sync with other characters to pace guests and prevent some from going too slow and causing others to run into them.  By creating a steady pace with a timer at the door, we can maintain proper spacing of groups throughout the house.  The characters in the haunt all have a part in supporting that separation,” Rizzo concluded.

The USS Nightmare’s attendance ranges between 25,000 and 35,000 patrons a year. Those numbers have remained constant for the past 10 years although Rizzo remembers an earlier period when 45,000 to 55,000 guests per year were the norm. He attributed the change to several factors. One, the haunt intentionally increased prices to reduce the number of tickets sold. This was done, in part for safety reasons. “We recognized that having an attendance of over 4,000 people on a Saturday night was just too many for our haunt to handle,” Rizzo said. At the same time, the haunt began adding more unique effects and slowing the tour’s pace so guests could better enjoy the house, thus providing better value for the ticket price. Finally, Rizzo also pointed to an increase in local competition and regional Halloween events as well as the power of social media and its tendency to dilute the market.

A set at Laurel’s House of Horror, which occupies an old movie theater. The art director is very resourceful as he works within a tight budget.

Nile Nightmares Haunted House in Mountlake Terrace, Wash., counts on design features to not only scare guests, but also to keep them moving along safely. The challenge lies in striking the right balance, according to Producer Peter Pawlicki. “We aim for each guest to feel immersed in our reality and not feel like they are in a crowded hallway. To accomplish this feat, we first design the queue line to be an immersive thing in and of itself, building on suspense before guests even enter the actual haunt,” he explained. Then staff metes out groups of four to six guests at a time every 60 seconds into the first attraction which adds separation between groups and minimizes crowding. Nile Nightmares efforts to space guests are greatly assisted by their 10-acre setting and string of six indoor attractions connected by outside trails. “Due to the size of our haunt we are able to re-queue at several places, in order to add space between the groups, and to maintain the fear level,” Pawlicki said. “Another thing we do is teach our actors to scare forwards, in order to keep guests moving through the haunt.” Ten thousand guests per year visit Nile Nightmares. Attendance has risen steadily over the past seven years and Pawlicki believes there is still room for expansion in their growing market.

Alejo Casalotti, art director, Laurel’s House of Horror, Laurel, Md. Roughly 15,000 people visited the haunt in 2017.

Being a relatively new company and a small one at that, Laurel’s House of Horror in Laurel, Md., biggest design challenge is budget. Art Director Alejo Casalotti rises to the occasion by being particularly resourceful. “They call me the trash artist. I can literally look at something and find a way to make it look like something brand new or something old or something that people don’t typically see that you could actually use it for,” he said. Tight budget aside, you could say the four-year-old haunt has a leg up on the competition in terms of overall safety since the owners of Laurel’s House of Horror are actual firemen. “Naturally, they’re gung-ho on safety and we have many firemen and EMTs volunteer for us,” said Casalotti. Roughly 15,000 people visited the haunt last year. The owners count on the actors they hire to keep guests moving safely throughout their facility which is actually an old converted movie theater. Actors are carefully trained to control the flow of the house to maximize patronage, yes, but more importantly, to prioritize patrons’ safety above all else. 

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